10 Things Schools Can Do to Support Single-Parent Families

It’s important for schools to create a culture that acknowledges and provides support for single-parent families. Here’s how.

Tara Taylor’s journey as a single parent started when her daughter was 6 months old. Now, her daughter is in college, and Taylor can reflect on her experience as a single parent during those K–12 years. In short: It’s not easy. “Think about all the challenges that two parents face,” says Taylor, “and multiply that.”

For single parents, getting the kids out the door in the morning, handling homework at night, and juggling school events with work can be tough. Here are 10 things your school can do to help make it a little easier for single parents. 

1. Ask good questions.

It may feel awkward to ask about family, but understanding a child’s home dynamic is important. Says Taylor, “We get caught up in not wanting to hurt feelings, so we don’t ask the questions that we should.” Some questions teachers can ask: Can you tell me about your family? What is your evening routine? Talk to the parent about the best way and time to get in touch. Ask: What can I do to help?

2. Fill in the cracks with communication.

As a single parent, there’s a lot to keep track of. “I might not be able to ask all the right questions every day,” says Taylor. “Something might fall through the cracks.” Taylor’s daughter had a journal full of homework notes and reminders that went from home to school every day. “Having a requirement like a journal that you had to look at every day,” says Taylor, “made me feel like I wasn’t dropping the ball.”

3. Consider homework carefully.

After-school programming that provides homework help means the world to single parents. Having strong homework help in place in the after-school hours is key. At the same time, as a staff, think carefully about the homework you send home. Homework that requires a parent’s help is hard to fit into a working single parent’s schedule, says single mom Lorinda Roslund.

4. Stop the scramble.

The science fair, field trips, or conferences—whatever the event, scheduling quickly becomes challenging for single parents. “I need more notice to be able to get off of work for an event,” says single mom Melina Black. In particular, last-minute events quickly become a stressful scramble. “Having schools or teachers plan events well ahead of time, or at least sending a save the date, is really helpful,” says Black. “Then you can be sure that you’re at those events.”

5. Got high schoolers? Provide childcare.

Providing childcare or allowing parents to bring younger siblings to upper-school events allows single parents to attend without worrying about babysitters, says single mom Lisa Lord. That could be as simple as enlisting older students to supervise kids in the cafeteria for 15 minutes while a parent attends a conference.

6. Drop the daddy-daughter doughnut days.

“I wish schools as a whole would get away from Muffins with Mom and Doughnuts with Dad,” says Black. That can be hard for parents and kids who don’t “fit” into the theme of the event. “When you’re super specific about a parent being involved and that parent isn’t available, the child feels that loss even more,” says Taylor, who remembers not being able to attend Mugs and Mamas coffee events when her daughter was in elementary school. Instead, plan events that aren’t parent specific. At single mom Caitlin Engle’s school, the Knight for a Princess Dance and Lady and the Champ Game Night were events that any adult could attend, taking the pressure off mom and dad.

7. Build in a buddy system.

Attending events during the school day can be hard for single parents. If an event has to happen during the day, Black suggests pairing kids who don’t have a parent present with another adult who can be their cheerleader. That way, the child isn’t the only one who doesn’t have someone doting on them, says Black.

8. Go live.

When school events have to happen during the day, technology, like Facetime or Livestream, can provide single parents with the chance to see what happens at an event without actually having to be there.

9. Outsource volunteering. 

Got a volunteer project that can be done at home? Invite parents to chip in. “I would have loved to have stuffed envelopes or cut things out, something that I could do at home,” says Black. Projects that can be done after hours allow parents to contribute without having to be at school.

10. Supporting single parents means supporting families. 

When Fatima Pardo became a single mom, she felt embarrassed. “I felt like some parents looked down on me as a single mom,” she remembers. So, she was pleased when the teachers in her children’s school were overwhelmingly supportive of her new situation.

Emma Johnson, author of The Kickass Single Mom, points out that just because a parent is single doesn’t mean that they’re struggling or stressed. When it comes to raising kids, “single parents have the same struggles and the same joys,” says Johnson. The message: Single-parent families are just one type of family that you’ll have in your school, improving the school community for them will spill over and benefit all families.

Join the great conversations going on about school leadership in our Facebook groups at Principal Life and High School Principal Life.

Plus, check out how to be a principal parents want to talk to.

Posted by Samantha Cleaver

Samantha Cleaver, PhD, is a former special education teacher and instructional coach. She loves writing, reading, and traveling to new places that she's read about.

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